Sunday, April 24, 2005
@ Manila Times
Sri Lanka’s look-alike bone china sells big
By Amal Jayasinghe
DANKOTUWA, Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka’s ceramics industry, which has supplied crockery for Hollywood’s glitterati at their annual Oscar banquet, is now hoping to win its own acting award—for look-alike bone china.
A factory in this village 60 kilometres (37.5 miles) north of Colombo has begun turning out a product that contains calcium phosphate, the raw material that goes into the making of genuine bone china, but unlike the Real McCoy contains no bone ash at all.
“This is just as good, but the price is about 30 percent less,” said the chairman of Dankotuwa Porcelain, Sunil G. Wijesingha, holding up the ivory-coloured product against a light beam to display its translucency.
Traditional bone china, prized for its delicacy and originally meant for emperors, contains 30 to 37 percent bone ash, which is made from cows’ bones.
The company shipped its first container load of “new bone china” to Montanaro, a wholesaler in Italy, last month and since then the highly labour intensive factory has not been able to cope with orders.
“We are no longer in the utility business,” said Wijesingha. “What we are selling is a lifestyle product. We have constantly to keep changing not only the patterns but the shapes as well.”
The factory, which employs just over 1,000 workers, has long been a supplier of delicate dinner sets for western markets and proudly displays some of the cups and saucers, complete with the “RL” logo, that it makes for Ralph Lauren.
Protected inside a glass cabinet are examples of the dinner sets it has made for US store chain Macy’s for 13 straight years.
For Hollywood’s Oscar banquets, an elaborate gold-bordered design known as “Magnificence” was used in the late 1990s and again, but this time in platinum, in 2001.
Ornate gold-plated crockery has also found a lucrative market in Gulf states, according to Dankotuwa officials.
Sri Lanka’s competitors are in Bangladesh and Thailand but according to Wijesingha the local industry has managed to secure a small but growing niche in Europe and in the United States.
Sri Lankans themselves see little of the Dankotuwa delights. Only a fraction of the company’s output is sold in the local market with the bulk going to foreign departmental stores.
Last September the company opened an outlet in India after noticing that Indian visitors to the island often returned home lugging bulky dinner sets.
With its crockery now available through a small network of retailers in India, Dankotuwa is trying to shift Indian buyers from their traditional preference for tableware made by Noritake of Japan which has maintained a manufacturing plant in Sri Lanka since 1972.
According to Sri Lanka’s main investment regulatory authority, the Board of Investment, Noritake’s Sri Lanka operation turns out 1.2 million pieces of tableware and employs 1,200 people.
Noritake Sri Lanka makes fine china and airline porcelain ware, as well as freezer-proof and microwave-safe casual gourmet ware, mainly for the export market.
Dankotuwa imports its raw materials from Korea, India and China while quartz and feldspar are found locally. A single piece of crockery could take up to eight days to be made through a labour-intensive process.
Dankotuwa chief executive K. S. Mallawa Arachchi is cagey about his manufacturing process but freely admits that what he produces is not bone China.
“What we make is a fine white porcelain body,” Mallawa Arachchi said. “People call it new bone china because it looks like it, but we don’t use bone ash to make it.”
The new bone china is about 25 percent more expensive than the ordinary porcelain made here while depending on the market the new product could be 25 to 30 percent cheaper than genuine bone china.
Bone china is also made with white clay, but with bone ash added and fired at 1,800 degrees Centigrade (3,272 degrees Fahrenheit). The translucent material is finished with a glaze or underglaze for a mat finish and it is lighter, stronger and more expensive than porcelain.
Sri Lanka’s total ceramic exports in 2004 were worth 46.8 million dollars, up from 42 million dollars in the previous year, according to Central Bank of Sri Lanka figures.
With the Dankotuwa “new bone china” line, the village hopes to become internationally known for fine tableware overtaking its current local reputation as a centre for the finest bootleg liquor.